Pubdate: Thu, 17 Jan 2013
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Mitchell S. Rosenthal
Note: Dr. Rosenthal, a child psychiatrist, is the founder of Phoenix House,
the nation's largest nonprofit substance-abuse treatment and
prevention organization.


Forgotten In The Debate Is The
Damage Marijuana Does To Adolescent Brains.

Pot is not legal-at least not yet. But it's not exactly illegal
either-not anymore. More than a dozen states have decriminalized the
possession of marijuana. Nearly a score of them sanction its medical
use. Voters in Washington and Colorado have made recreational use of
the drug legal in their states.

One way or another, all of these changes mean that there will be more
marijuana in homes for young people to find and use. Granny may be
smoking it for glaucoma, but there is nothing benign about the effects
of pot on a juvenile brain. Whatever its legal status, pot is not harmless.

Marijuana hasn't achieved its present status of relative social
acceptability by virtue of its virtues, but rather despite mounting
evidence of the dangers it poses, especially to young users-and even
more to users under age 18. While adults may be at risk, too, a
considerable number of them appear to use marijuana in relative
safety. So the case for prohibition has rested most securely on
potential harm to adolescents.

Pot's potential for harm has as much to do with the nature of
adolescence as it does with the nature of THC, the active ingredient
in marijuana. That's because kids do foolish things because they are
kids-and their brains are not yet fully developed. Unfortunately, the
part of the brain that censors dumb and dangerous behavior is last to
develop. It doesn't generally come fully on line until the mid-20s,
but the pleasure-seeking part of the brain is fully functioning by

So, kids do foolish things that are often risky-and get so much
riskier when teenagers are high. Moreover, smoking marijuana is by
itself a risky enterprise, and most addictive for the young. A study
published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology in
1994 found that one in 10 young people who use marijuana will go on to
become addicted. Pot smoking puts the user at risk of psychosis,
changes in the anatomy of the brain, and damage to the heart and
lungs. It retards maturation and impairs learning, memory and
judgment-no small matters during the adolescent years.

Among the many thousands of adolescents we have treated at the
programs of Phoenix House over the past four decades, the overwhelming
majority have used no drug more potent than marijuana. And for many of
those young people, the course of their lives has been altered,
sometimes permanently and often tragically, with suicides, car
accidents and drownings-or with interrupted education, chronic
depression and joblessness.

Federal law still outlaws marijuana. Yet President Obama told Barbara
Walters in December that "it does not make sense from a prioritization
point of view for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state
that has already said that under state law that's legal." Meanwhile,
the Senate Judiciary Committee plans hearings to find some legislative
route around the federal-state impasse.

Given all that we know, the sensible strategy at this point is to send
an unequivocal message that "legal" is not a synonym for "safe." This
is not a novel concept. We have plenty of examples. Alcohol is legal
and, in many ways, it can be even more threatening to teens than
marijuana. Hand guns (and assault rifles) are also legal, but they are
hardly benign.

While rational societies generally make some effort to protect
children from obvious dangers, it is fundamentally a parental
responsibility-and one that we humans share with the rest of the
animal kingdom. It may be helpful if there is law on the parents'
side. But this is not essential, nor does its absence diminish in any
way a parent's familial obligations.

There will be restriction on legal marijuana sales to
children-following the alcohol template, states considering
legalization use 21 as the legal age. But we cannot expect such
restrictions to be any more effective in limiting teen marijuana use
than they are in limiting teen smoking or drinking.

And then there is the issue of easier-than-ever access as more adults
can buy or grow marijuana for their personal use. In 2000, a study
commissioned by Phoenix House found that among 600 young people in
treatment, only 1% were introduced to drugs by a dealer, and that a
primary source of illicit drugs was relatives or family friends.

At this point in the country's history, whether pot is legal or not is
no longer the main issue. The issue is the danger that marijuana poses
to kids, how parents can protect their children from that danger, and
what the rest of society-absent the criminal justice system-can do to
support them in that fight.

Dr. Rosenthal, a child psychiatrist, is the founder of Phoenix House,
the nation's largest nonprofit substance-abuse treatment and
prevention organization.
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